Communist-style surly service is de rigeur even in private Bulgarian banks, even in 2008
Issue 24, September 2008
by Christopher Buxton; illustration by Gergana Shkodrova
Rejoice all you oldies who pine for the atmosphere of Communist Bulgaria. It is alive and well (despite a few cosmetic alterations) in a now private, formerly stated-owned, bank in Burgas. There is no need to sit at home dabbing Kleenex to the eye as you watch your seventh re-run of Goodbye Lenin. Hurry on down to re-experience the thrill of being put in your proper place.
Brey! (A Bulgarian village expression of wonderment.) What have they done to our bank? Connoisseurs of Communist interior design will be horrified to learn it has been modernised. Where is the dingy beige marble? Where are the dusty central tables for filling out endless forms? Where is the low all-enclosing semicircular counter and multitude of dirty glass windows that used to separate you from the clerks? Where are the inscrutable notices by each window promising such a bewildering variety of services that you inevitably joined the wrong queue - thus improving your chances of meeting lots of new people? And most sadly, where are the shuttered holes in the window panes through which you were privileged to speak and gain invaluable exercise while craning your neck and bending your back?
My fingers twitch. Should I write a letter to Ataka, complaining about this latest evidence of Europe's insidious corruption of Bulgarian values? But there is not even a table at which I could write.
Ts! Ts! Ts! (A Bulgarian pensioner's expression of disapproval.) What have they done? They've removed the Berlin wall of tight little windows. The floor has a carpet. The walls have a fresh lick of paint. The whole place is flooded with light and the clerks now sit fully visible and apparently unprotected behind an open counter. There is even a notice in green addressing us no longer as citizens but as esteemed clients.
But as any lover of Bulgaria will tell you, appearances can be deceptive. As we wonder to which clerk we should address our enquiries, a self-important ex-militsiya man directs us to the back of a queue. Waiting clients jostle between two central pillars and behind an invisible line that leaves half the bank floor free for our conductor to march up and down as if he were on parade.
On one pillar a notice is posted advising us that the queue is for Complex Transactions. My enquiry about a possibly shorter queue for Simple Transactions is met by an angry frown. Ahead, beyond the parade ground, six clerks sit behind the counter, with signs advertising readiness to deal with "complex transaction." However, only two of them seem to be working with clients. The others are either counting money or watching the others count money. They all avoid eye contact with members of the increasingly restless queue.
Ooorah! (A Bulgarian expression of joy.) At last, on the far left a client has completed her business and the woman at the head of the queue steps forward to take her place. However, in the militarised zone between the pillar and the counter, the patrol forcibly stops her, grabbing her by the shoulder. The indignation is all one sided. No one is allowed to move from behind the invisible line without the direct permission of our ex-militsiya man. Her mild protests are stifled. So easily do we shift back into compliance!
As she is returned to the head of the queue, a new arrival goes straight to the available clerk. It becomes evident that there are two kinds of complex transactions - one for important business people and one for esteemed clients like us. So for the time being there is only one clerk available for a queue of by now 12 people.
This does cause some comment in the queue as mathematicians work out what 12 times five minutes comes to. But our man in power will tolerate no satire. The bank deserves the respect due to a church. Irreverent whispering must cease. Silence is appropriate. I wonder when he will get around to measuring our hair and skirt lengths.
What is deeply reassuring for those nostalgic for the good old days is how patiently, how unquestioningly people in the queue accept all this. As the late lamented leader Todor Zhivkov might have said, "Wasn't there wine? Wasn't there laughter? Wasn't there patience?"
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers